Stormzy and Abigail Owuo by Olivia Rose

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    Abigail Owuo; Stormzy,    by Olivia Rose,    7 March 2016,    NPG x200372,    Olivia Rose
Grime artist and activist Stormzy, with his mother Abigail Owuo.
Abigail Owuo; Stormzy
by Olivia Rose
gelatin silver print, 7 March 2016
13 1/8 in. x 11 in. (333 mm x 278 mm) image size
NPG x200372
Olivia Rose
On display in Room 33 on Floor 0 at the National Portrait Gallery

Stormzy (born 1993) is a British rapper, singer and songwriter. His 2017 album Gang Signs & Prayer was the first Grime A style of British rap music that started in the early 2000s in east London within young, multicultural communities. album to reach number one in the UK charts. He helped grime become one of the largest British cultural, fashion and musical exports from the early 2000s. This contemporary Black British musical genre has enabled many to create a sense of belonging, as well as connect to an audience beyond Britain.

Stormzy is also an Activist A person who works to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organisation with particular aims. , who has spoken out against racial inequality and injustice in Britain. His scholarship programme helps fund places for Black British students at the University of Cambridge. The charity, #MerkyFoundation, which he founded in 2019 helps to provide an important platform for writers from underrepresented communities and has pledged millions of pounds to support Black British causes.

Analysing the portrait

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    Abigail Owuo; Stormzy,    by Olivia Rose,    7 March 2016,    NPG x200372,    Olivia Rose
Abigail Owuo; Stormzy, by Olivia Rose, 7 March 2016

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • He is wearing a dark-coloured, zipped top. The top is from the Swedish streetwear brand New Black. The brand was created by two friends who both love graffiti and hip-hop and the culture that surrounds it.
    • This is Stormzy’s mother, Abigail Owuo. She was born in Ghana and brought up her four children as a lone parent in south London.
    • Owuo is a private person. She and Stormzy have a close relationship.
    • Stormzy is sitting down. His mother is standing close to him and resting her elbow on his shoulder. They both look relaxed and comfortable together.
    • The photograph appears to show a close bond between mother and son. Stormzy has talked a lot about his ‘strong’ mother and how she was a source of inspiration to him.
    • The artist may also be trying to show a more private side to Stormzy, different to the more public side we see of him as a performer.
    • The portrait is a black and white photograph.
    • Olivia Rose has framed the Composition The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. , so Stormzy and his mother appear close-up. This gives the portrait an intimate feel, as though we are close enough to have a conversation with them.
    • Rose photographed them in a room that appears historic. They are positioned in a diagonal with Stormzy's face in the lower right and his mother’s face in the upper left.
    • Although the focus is on Stormzy and his mother, Rose has positioned them in the lower left half of the image, rather than in the centre. The rest of the composition is given over to the visually interesting background.
    • The sitters are lit from one side. The light may be natural light from a window. Although this means their faces are half in shadow, we can still clearly see their expressions and get a sense of who they are.
    • The overall effect again gives us a sense of the close relationship between mother and son, and of a more private side to Stormzy.
My mum was born and raised in Ghana and has a lot of Ghanaian values and traditions and morals. All that rubbed off on me, and that’s why I have a lot of love and good energy in me – that universal energy is a Ghanaian thing. 
Stormzy, 2016

Who is Stormzy?

  • Stormzy was born Michael Ebenezer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Jr. He grew up in south London and began rapping at the age of eleven.
  • In the earlier days of Grime A style of British rap music that started in the early 2000s in east London within young, multicultural communities. , young people like Stormzy gathered in schools, youth clubs, public spaces and on council estates where they lived, to make music that allowed them to express themselves and tell their stories about their lives.
  • He released his first EP Stands for extended play; a music recording which is longer than a single track but shorter than an album. , Dreamers Disease, in 2014. It made him the first Freestyle A type of rap vocal performance, either pre-written or improvised, that is only performed once. act to reach the UK charts. That year, he also won Best Grime Act at the MOBO (award) Music of Black Origin , and again in 2015.
  • In 2017, his album Gang Signs & Prayer was the first grime album to go straight to number one in the UK album charts. It was also the first ever rap album to win British Album of the Year at the 2018 BRIT (award) British Record Industry Trust . Stormzy used his BRIT Awards performance to criticise the British government for not doing enough to help the residents of Grenfell Tower, a 24-storey tower block in North Kensington that suffered a catastrophic fire in 2017, killing 72 people.
  • In 2018, Stormzy launched #Merky Books, a collaboration with Penguin Random House, to help champion writers from underrepresented communities. He also launched the Stormzy Scholarship, funding places for Black British students at the University of Cambridge.
  • In 2019, Stormzy became the first British rapper to headline Glastonbury festival A festival of contemporary performing arts – particularly music – that takes place in Somerset, England. It is attended by over 200,000 people and is internationally recognised as a major event in British culture. . He wore a Union Jack flag stab vest (designed by the British street artist and Activist A person who works to achieve political or social change, especially as a member of an organisation with particular aims. Banksy) highlighting rising knife crime in London.
  • Following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Stormzy announced he would donate one million pounds every year for ten years to help fight racial inequality and injustice in Britain.
  • In 2021, Stormzy ranked as the third most influential Black Briton in the Powerlist An annual list of the 100 most influential people of African or African Caribbean heritage in the United Kingdom. .

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This portrait comes from the book This is Grime A style of British rap music that started in the early 2000s in east London within young, multicultural communities. , which the artist, Olivia Rose, created with music editor Hattie Collins. Rose photographed over 170 people for the project.
  • Rose took this photograph in the historic Chequers pub in Oxford. Stormzy was about to give a speech to the Oxford Guild, the world’s largest university society. He was just 22 years old.
  • This intimate portrait reflects the trust that developed between Rose as the artist, and Stormzy as the sitter in the portrait.

Who is Olivia Rose?

  • Olivia Rose is a British director and photographer.
  • She says her work is not about being a ‘technical’ photographer. She is more interested in reflecting authenticity and character through her photographs, aiming to capture people at their ‘most human’.
  • She has said she is not keen on studio lighting or bright colours but does see the Composition The arrangement of people or objects in a painting or photograph. of her photographs as important to her style.
  • Rose has talked about being a white, middle-class woman and noted that her work deals with race. She has said: ‘I have had to spend a lot of time unlearning my ignorance to arrive at a point where I feel comfortable to admit to that.’
  • She has also described her style of photography, which includes many images of young men, as ‘masculinity reinterpreted via [the] feminine Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. ’.

Questions

  1. Try copying the poses in this photograph. How do they make you feel?
  1. How might the message in the portrait change if Stormzy and his mother switched places?
  1. What do you think the artist, Olivia Rose, was trying to say about Stormzy in this photograph?
  1. Why do you think Olivia Rose chose to photograph Stormzy like this rather than during a performance?